When the Sparrow Sings – Pregame

How much money do I have to give up to be allowed to be a person? (Illustration by Brooke Howell)

How much money do I have to give up to be allowed to be a person? (Illustration by Brooke Howell)


Pregame.

“I am going to pitch.” This is the first thing I say and the only thing that matters. Cameras snap and reporters start asking questions. I don’t know what I am supposed to say and do. Am I supposed to smile or not? I try to look quietly dignified. Someone asks a question and I miss it completely.

I shouldn’t be up here.

“Um, listen guys, I appreciate that you all have questions, but I’m going to turn it over to Cam and Jerry here. I just thought it was important that I be here for the announcement. I mean, that I make the announcement.”

Maybe this was a mistake. Why did they ask me to do a press conference? Couldn’t they just send out a press release? They could just tweet it for all I care. They wanted me up here, though. Cameron said it would help team morale. I don’t know why. Now I just have to not look too sad. I think that’s my job. I’ll try to be attentive. Jerry is talking. What do you have to say, skip?

“Right now, we have Zack scheduled to start game two. I said that yesterday, and I don’t see any reason to change. He’s had a shock, we all know that, and we want to let him recover.”

Right, Jerry, right. My dad died. That’s why you’re holding me until game two of the Series. It’s not, I don’t know, that I’d be going on short rest in game one and you can only have me for two games anyway. Good framing there. I can tell you used to catch. The reporters are eating it up, though. They’re scribbling away. The better ones will point out that game two means regular rest for me. The lazy ones will just take what he’s feeding them.

Christ. Just get me out of here.

 * * *

The World Series starts in a few hours. I am staring at my phone. I have been staring at my phone all day. I can do that right now and no one will blame me. If it weren’t for the situation, though, I’d be aloof. Maybe even a clubhouse cancer if I stared at my phone while frowning. But now, it’s just grief. No one wants to talk to me anyway.

Let’s see what the headlines are after the little press conference.

Hiatt: “I’ll Pitch.”

Short, but sweet, I like it.

Fan Reaction: Our Hero

That’s a little over the top, isn’t it? What if I didn’t pitch? What if I stink? I really might stink. Will I be a villain then? Yes, though no one will say it. You can’t just blast someone for taking time off work when his father dies. You can think it though. And some people would say it. You know they would. I’d walk down the street, pass some goon and hear my manhood questioned. None of the articles will say that, will they? We Made Him Do It or Hiatt MUST Pitch. It writes itself.

October 18th –

In the wake of a father’s tragic death in a car accident the day after watching his son pitch his team into the World Series, the son, star pitcher Zack Hiatt made the announcement required of him by our absurd, sports-obsessed culture.

“I’m obviously very broken up,” said Hiatt, “but I know in this society, there is almost nothing more important than winning a championship in sports. Obviously, my grief over my father’s death must take a backseat to the requirements of the public in this matter. Otherwise, I would spend the rest of my life regarded as a spineless pariah.”

It’s impossible to deny the wisdom in what Hiatt says. Despite the supposed outpouring of understanding over his tragic loss, it is undeniable that all those concerned – media, fans, and team management – saw Hiatt’s predicament as having only one solution. Indeed, it can be seen clearly in quotes from around the baseball world:

A Fan:

“Obviously, I understand how broken up he must be. I’m really close to my dad, and I’d be a wreck if he died. But, you know, it’s been a long time since we had a championship in this city and Hiatt has been a huge part of this team. I don’t know if they can do it without him.”

From General Manager Cameron Bunton:

“I’ve spoken to Zack, and he knows he’ll have whatever he needs from us. He’s been absolutely vital to this team and, though we’re obviously better with him, we do believe we have a shot even if he decides he isn’t ready to go.”

In the light of such clear statements regarding the priorities of those who control his professional destiny, there is no doubt that Hiatt must pitch. Indeed, he must perform well to avoid being seen as lacking the capacity to compete in the face of adversity. Players who earn the reputation of being “soft” find that it dogs them for the rest of their careers.

Sigh. I don’t really know that that’s true, I guess. It feels true though. I shouldn’t have looked at the comments. Why can’t we all learn to never read the comments? Yes, I am rich. I am hugely, unbelievably rich. When I was small my dad worked in a factory and my mom was an accountant and we were always comfortable. And now, if I want to feel entitled, that can look like poverty. I am rich. But what does that mean? How much money do I have to give up to be allowed to be a person? If I were like my parents, no one would doubt. No one would question. Sure Zack, take a couple of weeks off. Go be with your family. It’s hard losing a parent like that. I’m not like them, though.

At least there’s a baseball game today. Pitch charting and mental preparation. Maybe that will help.

 * * *

This is not going to feel right. There is no right. It feels wrong to pitch. They are burying my dad tomorrow. They put off the funeral for me. Because I can’t get off work.

Oh Jesus. I should not start crying before I pitch in the World Series. That would be bad. Especially with reporters crawling everywhere. No, I should not start crying.

But it would feel wrong not to pitch, too. It’s the World Series. And then there’s dad. It’s not like I went into this against his wishes. He might have wanted this more than me. He absolutely wanted this more than me. I am aware that it might never happen again. This may be the only chance I ever have to pitch in the World Series. And if I don’t go, they’re stuck with Sharp, who’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t belong on a playoff roster.

I wonder. If someone had taken me onto the field last night after we lost and the place had emptied so quickly and the only people left were those cleaning the stands. If they had stood me there on the mound. Or maybe not on the mound, but on the edge of the grass behind third base. If they had let me look at the destroyed baselines and the nonexistent batter’s boxes and the spot over behind short where Manny slipped and took up the turf, but still made the catch. If they had stood me there and said, “It is your choice. No one will hate you if you say no and no one will love you if you say yes. The lights will be bright like this, but the lines will be clean again and the turf will be patched and the stands will be full and it will be your game and it will be what you always wanted it to be. And the timing will be wrong and it will feel wrong. But it will be yours and there are no consequences beyond that choice. Beyond what you feel.” If they had done that and then walked off the field and left me standing there as long as I wanted before I had to decide. What would I have said?

I don’t know.

But no one did that. No one has asked me how I felt or what I wanted. It has been assumed that my grief is simple. Two-dimensional. Either my father’s death is too much for me or it is not. Either I have the stones to soldier through it – if we want to get into baseball cliché – or I do not.

Can it be both? That feels the most right. It is too much and I must pitch. But if dad knew – if he knew that I did not pitch and that it was because of him. What would he say to that? He only ever talked about my career in the plural. We’ve worked for this your whole life, Zack. This is our dream. This is what it’s all about. We finally get to see what you can do on the big stage. That was what he was like that night when I spoke to him. Before the accident. Would it dishonor his memory? Or would it say something else? Would it say that he mattered beyond baseball even if he only ever thought in baseball?

“What? No, no. Tell him I can’t talk now. I’m getting ready.”

“You know what they’re going to think, right?” This is John, our hitting coach.

“Yeah, I know. How could I not know? Do you think I’m stupid!

“Wait, wait, come back, John. I’m sorry man. They’re right to think that, you know. I know you guys, all the coaches and the players, too, you don’t want to think that and you don’t want anyone else to think that, but it’s true. I’m sorry I yelled. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m pitching. Now, it only matters how I pitch. I’ll talk after. Tell them I’ll talk after the game. Tell them I’m gathering my thoughts. That will sound better. It’ll give them something they can put on the blog or in the paper or on Twitter. That’s all they want.”

I love John. I think it might be weird for a pitcher to be so close with the hitting coach – I don’t even get to pretend to hit like NL pitchers – but I am. We went to the same college. Well, he went. I visited for a couple of years. We even had the same coach. He’s good at seeing weak spots in hitters, but we don’t really talk about that. John’s a smart guy. He only ever got to Triple-A, but he has a real college degree. He double majored in literature and biology and he was the starting third baseman for four years. That’s amazing. He gives me books to read. I told him how I think too much between starts and he started giving me stuff to read. So we talk about that mostly.

I’m glad he’s going to be back next year. Last year, the guys didn’t hit as well as everyone thought they should and there was talk about maybe letting him go. Almost everybody hit this year, though. There’s no way he’s not coming back with how our offense was.

I have ninety minutes. For ninety minutes I will be a hero. The fans do not care if I talk to the media. The tragedy, they think, has given me the choice of not talking. For ninety minutes, they will love me, and then I will take the mound and I will pitch. If I pitch well, everyone – the fans, the reporters, my teammates – will believe I used this time to gather strength. If I pitch poorly, they will believe I was falling apart. That I never should have been allowed to pitch. It is cold to think this, but how I pitch today will affect how much money teams are willing to pay me when this is over. It will affect whether or not this team wants to re-sign me. If I pitch well, I am a superstar. If I do not, I am a question mark with make-up issues. These are the clichés we use to try and glean the truth.

But for ninety minutes they will cheer me because they do not want my life right now. When I step on the mound, it will be deafening. I have that. I have ninety minutes, and then we will see. Time to get ready.

 * * *

“How’s your arm today?”

“Good. It’s good, Petey.” That’s a smart question. These bullpen catchers are always good for that kind of thing. They know how to keep the mood up. That’s how they keep their jobs. They don’t have skills to play, but they can stick around forever if they make pitchers feel comfortable. Petey wants to know about my arm. He doesn’t want to know about my head and he doesn’t want me to think about my head. The arm. Let’s focus on the arm. Fastballs first.

“Good, that’s good. Don’t turn it up too high yet. Still getting warm.”

Popped it too hard. That was probably ninety-two. He’s right. Too early for that. Fastballs. Not one-hundred percent. Take it down.

“That’s good. That’s better. Ease into it. Game hasn’t started yet. Don’t get too excited.”

Yes, the game. The game. Only the game. I see Dave watching me over there. He’s staying quiet, but I see him. He wants to know where my head is. He’s thinking of what he’ll say if he has to come out to the mound later. If I give up a homer or, worse, if I can’t get the ball over. That’s what I have to worry about. That’s what he’s worried about. If I think too much, I lose control. That’s always been my problem. Or it was. I figured it out, though. Don’t think. Just pitch. Bull Durham. Here comes Dave.

“Okay, you’re lookin’ good. A little strong maybe, but it’s a big game, so that’s okay. Better to get it out now. Let’s get Brian in here, work the off-speed stuff in a little and see where we stand.”

“Fastball First.”

He told me to get it out. Let’s get it out.

“Good, good. Strong arm tonight. Let’s see the change.”

I heard you suck air, Dave. I heard it. You were afraid that was gonna hit the wall and it did. It’s cold though. Hard to grip. “Don’t worry, ball’s slick. Let me give it another run.” There we go.

“Okay, slider.”

Dirt. Dirt. Ahhh, that didn’t even go fifty feet. “Sorry, Brian.”

“Hey man, it’s fine. Do it now. Don’t do it out there.” He nods toward the field like we’re not already out here. Like cameras aren’t watching me now.

Somewhere, there is a seat my dad would have sat in and someone else is there. We all know this, but we’re not talking about it. Normal jitters. That’s all it is, right? Normal jitters. Just get it out now.

“Let’s go again.”

Better. Low, but it got there.

“Okay, boys, huddle up. Change looks good. Fastball looks great. Let’s stick with those until the jitters are out, then you can start calling the splitter, Brian. Let’s start that out with the last couple of guys. Don’t want to make a mistake against the middle of that lineup.”

Brian and I are both nodding. This is a rational plan. It is just jitters. Normal nerves. The anthem is starting.

 * * *

We are in the dugout. In a moment, I will jog out. They will see me. I will hear cheers. They will be loud. I am jogging. They are loud. I know what I am going to do. My cleats grip the turf and pull at the grass. I am jogging onto the field and there is the infield dirt. And they are still screaming. Brian is talking to me, but I cannot hear him. They are screaming and screaming and they love me and these are maybe the last minutes of that. And it is so loud. And here is the mound. A fresh ball. Waxy and cold. Brian is squatting behind the plate. I am rubbing the ball to warm it. Kneading it in my hands. I will throw eight pitches and the game will begin.

I position myself on the rubber. I come set and it is cold and my breath fogs the air in front of me. I cannot smell anything other than the cold. I do not smell the dirt or the grass. It is loud. It is still so loud. I throw. It is clean and true and there are seven pitches left.

Brian throws the ball back. The sound as it hits my glove is more crack than pop because it is cold and the leather is stiff instead of supple. I use the toe of my cleat to dig away at the dirt in front of the rubber. This is the thirty-seventh time I have stood on the mound before the start of a game this year and each time the mound has been perfect and each time I have thrown my first warm-up pitch and then dug away with my cleat because it never feels quite perfect. I wonder if this bothers the groundsman who handles the mound. I wonder if sees himself contributing to the beautiful thing that is a field before the game begins and if he sees that the game is also beautiful. Or, perhaps, he sees me as a parasite fouling his work. I don’t know. I think it is probably the former, but I always wonder. My hole is dug and I throw the next pitch and it tails a little on me, but Brian reaches it and gloves it and tosses it back and there are six pitches left.

I have been going wrong all day. All day the routine has been off, but now, as I approach my third pitch, and my left foot settles into the hole I have made in front of the rubber, the crowd quiets for just a moment – readying itself for the roar of the first real pitch – and I forget about the cold. It is just like a normal game. It is something I have done before almost two hundred times since I was brought up to stay. The crowd chatters and vendors shout and the world spins. I throw again. This one is true. I hit the spot set for me. It pops in his glove and he throws it quickly back and there are five pitches left.

I feel fine now. I see Juan Ramirez standing off to the side, swinging the bat loosely, feeling the cold as I do, and trying to shake it out. My foot finds its spot against the rubber and everything stays in place. I hit my spot again. Four pitches to go.

The ball comes back to me and snaps into my glove, which is working loose against the heat of my hand. As I settle in, the wind shifts and the smell of fresh hot dogs and popcorn finds its way to me on the mound. Maybe it is my imagination, but I swear I can feel the heat of the concession stand. It breaks through the cold and I lose whatever zone I have been in because I am thinking of dad now and how he always used to buy me a hot dog before the start of a game. “So you don’t get hungry later.” My dad never drank alcohol at ballgames. He didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom. If the day was hot and it was late in the game, he might indulge in a soda. But mostly it was water. The ballpark was his classroom. Even when I was six or seven, I was expected to hold my bladder all the way through. If I insisted, he would take me, but it was never worth it. I always felt it would have been better to go in my pants. I never did, though. I was afraid of his wrath if he decided a cleanup was needed. I am thinking of this and Brian is looking at me and I realize I have been standing without moving for longer than is normal. I shake it off and throw. It bounces just in front of him, but he stops it easily. Tosses it back and says to relax. There are three pitches left.

I see Ramirez off to the side again. He’s moved closer so he can time me. He’s just a kid. From the Dominican, I think. It’s only his second year and I’ve never faced him before, but I know the scouting report. He might be a very nice kid, but right now, he terrifies me. I see him and I think what my dad taught me to think. He wants to hurt me. He is going to try to hurt me. Not directly, of course. But the indirectness somehow makes it worse. It is not just me. It is the other 24. The thousands around us. And I will try to hurt him back. It is a game of hurt. Mostly mental, sometimes physical. I don’t think of this often. I stopped a few years ago. It was a part of the thinking too much. It’s front and center now, though. I begin the wind-up. My hands are behind my head and I see a line drive laced down the right field line. Ramirez is fast and before I can blink already there is a man on third. My hands are back to my chest and it is cold. Why is it so cold? Why are we playing this July game now? There are two pitches left.

I have never in my life thought so much during warm-up pitches. Never. When I was young, I fussed over my mechanics. I’m tall and my arms are long and it was hard to get everything working together. I would focus hard and the harder I focused, the more polarized my results were. When I wasn’t thinking, I looked like every wild pitcher you have ever seen. Focused, there were only two options. The pitch would perfectly knick the corner for the kind of devastating strike that didn’t belong on a high school field or it would sail over the catcher and umpire into the chain-link fence. I wedged balls into it sometimes. I knew I was terrifying, but I didn’t want to be. I just wanted to pitch. I am not thinking like that now. I am everywhere. My brain cannot decide if it wants to land on the past or on right now. It flits back and forth like a bee darting from blossom to blossom. I have one pitch left.

Everyone suddenly awakes. The batter waits to be announced. The crowd becomes loud. So loud. I have never experienced loudness like this. I have no context. Is it like the inside of a jet engine or is it like the blast from an atomic bomb or is it only a herd of elephants at full sprint? I don’t know. But it is loud. I cannot hear anything else but every so often, voices come through and as I am winding up I hear one and it sounds like my dad. I don’t know how it makes me feel, but it grabs me so that everything else falls away and the ball rolls out of my fingers and snaps into Brian’s glove right where he wanted it. I can tell from the way he pops up to toss it back that he is happy. He feels better about me after that pitch, and he feels the energy, too. He played last night, but this is also his first World Series and he is excited. In slim moments, I become excited too. But it can never wash over me like I know it is washing over Brian and the others. I am alone. Everyone else has someone here, but my dad is not here and my mom is not here because her husband has just died and my sister is not here because her dad has just died. I am here and I walk behind the mound. I pick up the rosin bag and drop it. I climb the mound. I nod at the plate.

And the umpire shouts, “Play ball!” and I tuck the cold white ball into my glove and I stare down the distance between the mound and home, and Ramirez steps in and takes his stance like a bouncing piston ready to force an explosion and I wait for what I know is coming. Brian puts down the sign. A single finger extends downward. I nod. I straighten. I try to relax my shoulders. I breathe out.

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Comments

  1. Dale Bartle said...

    Very impressive! Would it be too much to ask for an autographed copy? You have a gift, it puts a reader in the room, a fly on the wall. I forgot where i was while reading, been a while since a book did that for me.

  2. Justin P said...

    Wow. It really delves further into the cold and heartless side of baseball: the business side. The side that doesn’t care whether or not you are a clubhouse cancer but rather cares about you line drive percentage against curveballs. I’m looking forward to reading the rest as it is published.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    A great look at the human side of baseball. A great novel almost always turns a human issue into a zero-sum game and this is no exception. I read something like this and ask if there isn’t a fair compromise, fudge factor to make it not be such an either/or. But it’s good writing and I look forward to more.

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